Monday, 26 January 2015
My Talk for the UK Literacy Association, July 2014
The other day I got a tweet from someone called Cath Beard. There was a photo of a very young child sitting with a board book. The tweet said:
5yr old read the 1yr old 'We're going on a bear hunt' this morning. Here she is reading it to hrslf
My first thought was, well that’s nice. And then I thought some more. Surely there’s some mistake here. Assuming all the facts are as stated, then a 5 year old reading ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ is either wrong or misguided or both. ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ is not phonically regular throughout, the ‘tricky words’ or ‘red words’ are not clearly marked, the book is much too heavily illustrated, the words are much too easily learned off by heart, the final page has no words on it at all. I think we should assume that the children in question are not only not-decoding but that they are in great danger. They are in great danger of what ex-schools Minister Nick Gibb told me happens - namely of being confused by multi-cuing strategies, which will let them down later on when they try to decode words that they haven’t come across.
I will assume that this room is full of people who learned how to read. While we were learning to read, there were some children who did not. According to present orthodoxies, there is one reason and one reason only for that. Or to nuance it a little, there would have been only one remedy for that. One account of that position - (that there would have been only one remedy for some of our companions not learning how to read) - this lone remedy should be applied to all children, including the child reading ‘We’re going a bear hunt’ to her baby sister. I understand this as a marketing ploy. I’’m not sure I understand it as a piece of educational policy. After all, one of the watchwords of educational policy is choice. Not in learning how to read, it seems.
So we should ask, I think: Is there any other part of the school curriculum that applies a one-size-fits-all method quite so rigidly? If, as I think, there isn’t another part of the curriculum being treated in that way, can we ask, what is so special about learning to read that it requires this one-size-fits-all method?
Meanwhile, back with the people in this room learning to read. If we weren’t taught by:
i) at least a half hour a day of systematic synthetic phonics,
ii) readers graded according to these principles, and
iii) taught on the principle of ‘first, fast and only‘.
How did we manage?
I learned how to read in several ways - simultaneously. I said ‘simultaneously‘ in that rather sententious, loaded way, because that word is itself, highly controversial. I am told on a daily basis that it’s either impossible or undesirable for children to learn how to read for meaning and learn how to decode at the same time. I am told over and over again, that first you learn how to decode, then you learn how to understand. Meanwhile, I am now being told that in fact, I am wrong when I have said in the past that ‘decoding‘ and ‘reading with understanding‘ are different. Apparently, there are some now who say, that for most native speakers of English, to decode is to ‘read with understanding‘ because they know the meaning of all the words they are decoding. And that is because the words in the phonics’ schemes are so simple that it can be assumed that the readers will know what they mean anyway.
And then….and then...
The snag with all talk of learning how to read, there is always an ‘and then’. Well, several actually. One of the big ‘and thens’ is what happens when you meet a word you can’t decode? What do you do then? And, another ‘and then’ is the question of what happens when you meet a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter or a book that you can ‘decode’ but can’t understand? What strategies will you use? What strategies are available? What strategies work?
Have the five year old and the one year old in that tweet got anything to offer in this conversation? Or are they in danger? And wrong?
So I go back to my own first reading experiences.
I was born in May 1946 and the first schooling in reading that I remember happened in September 1951 in Pinner Wood Primary School. I was on what was called the ‘Old Lob Approach to Reading’ . In the Picture Book - “Old Lob and his family’, along with the matching cards, I was introduced to 61 words. In the following book, ‘At Old Lob’s’ I was introduced to 14 more.
In ‘At Old Lob’s’ - I quote from the preface -
‘...every story about Old Lob and his animal family is presented in two forms. First, the story is told in a sequence of pictures wherein new words are introduced. The pupil thus connects a new word with a specific picture, and can refer back to the picture if he fails to recognize the word subsequently. In its second form the story is presented as a little play which uses the vocabulary of the preceding sequence pictures, but in a slightly different form. The play thus becomes a test of work done through the pictures and an opportunity for the child to use his new reading vocabulary in an interesting, conversational way.
It is assumed that while the pupil is reading ‘At Old Lob’s’ and using the individual material to accompany it, his phonic powers are being developed so that by the time he is ready for Book One (‘The Move’) he will be able to recognize as wholes the one-syllabled words containing a short vowel sound which occur in the context of that book.
Teachers who prefer an approach to phonics through single letter sounds will find the material for this in the Teachers’ Manual...The phonic tables at the end of this book can be used for phonic practice in connection with either of these methods.’
Meanwhile the theory behind this practice is spelled out in ‘The New Beacon Readers, Teachers’ Manual’. My copy dates from after the original edition of 1926 - so I can’t sure that my teachers were trained in exactly the same way.
I would like to read you a longish chunk of this because there is quite a lot of misinformation passed around about the theory and practice of the good old days. I come from the good old days, so I think this is very relevant. Please note, I’m not reading this out because I agree or disagree with it. I’m reading it out for the historical record - which is much disputed: pp 5-10
‘The act of reading - getting meaning from the printed page - is dependent upon two factors: (1) a mastery of the tools or the mechanics of reading; and (2) the ability of the reader to interpret the thought of what is read. The success and efficiency with which small children are taught to read depends upon the development of these two factors, and the maintenance of an adequate balance between them. Although the way in which reading is taught in some instances may seem to suggest that these factors are incompatible and incapable of development one with the other, a careful consideration of the reading habit can lead to but one conclusion - both an ability to recognize words in the printed page, and an ability to understand the meaning that lies behind them, are at the very basis of correct and efficient reading habits.
For a long time reading methods as developed in many schools have shown an inclination to place far too much emphasis on purely mechanical factors - usually in the form of phonics. One result of these over-emphasized mechanical methods is that much trivial, uninteresting, and sometimes meaningless matter has found its way into infant primers and readers. The feeble attempt to defend such matter is that it affords drill for a partially developed system of phonics. The thoughts and interests of children, even of very small children, cannot possibly be expressed adequately and naturally in words of two, or three, or four letters. The attempt so to express them, and to hold the pupils’ interest with material so conceived, greatly increases the difficulty learning to read. If we ask a child in the infant school, or in the lower standards, to read something that is more or less without meaning, or that contains more or less unfamiliar words and phrases - as do many purely phonic readers - the child cannot do other than proceed slowly and laboriously letter by letter. Reading under these conditions degenerates into a mere vocal exercise - the calling of words in sequence. The unfamiliar nature of such material makes it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for the child to grasp any meaning that may lie behind the printed page.
To spend a long time in teaching the letter sounds and in word building before allowing the child to commence reading renders his work much more irksome than it need be. On the other hand, to identify a few sounds with their symbols, and to attempt their use in so-called reading matter, begets “word calling” that is not in any sense real reading for interesting content. Emphasis on phonics - on the building up of words letter by letter, is not in itself sufficient to make the child an efficient reader. Phonics are but a device and an invaluable accompaniment to the well-conceived reading method, not a method in themselves. Recognition in reading does not proceed letter by letter but in word-wholes, in phrase-wholes, and sometimes in sentence-wholes. Too much emphasis on phonics is almost as likely to defeat the acquisition of correct and rapid habits of recognition as too little attention to them. “
The author is James H. Fassett.
In practice, I was learning how to read by reading this - this is what the preface called ‘the little play’:
p.32 ‘At Old Lob’s’
Mother Hen! Mother Hen!
Miss Tibs is up a tree.
She is afraid to come down.
What can we do?
Run for Mr. Dan, Percy.
He will help Miss Tib.
Mr. Dan! Mr. Dan!
Miss Tibs is up a tree.
She is afraid to come down.
What can we do?
Run for Old Lob, Percy.
He will help Miss Tibs.
I remember really liking my ‘Old Lob’ books.
By the way, it rather seems as if people in government think that learning to read by ‘look and say’ methods was something invented by dope-smoking hippies intent on tricking poor children out of the right to read, let me show you, ‘The Merry Readers - a whole word method of learning to read’ by H. Ada Beeny published in 1915.
Here’s the contents list from Book I
Jack and Jill went up the hill
Hickory, Dickory, Dock!
‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep’
‘Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man’
Little Tommy Tucker
The North Wind doth blow
Little Jack Horner
If I had a donkey
My little pussy
Old chairs to mend
Girls and boys come out to play
Little Boy Blue
‘Pussy-cat, Pussy-cat, where have you been!’
Three blind mice
Hey, diddle, diddle
Tom, Tom, the piper’s son
There was a crooked man
Jack and Jill
There was an old woman
The five little pigs
My little pony
Ride a cock-horse
See-saw! Margery Daw!
Little Polly Flinders
Little Miss Muffet
Ding, Dong, Bell
Robin Redbreast and Puss
‘Where are you going, my pretty maid?’
Mary’s little lamb
Cock a Doodle Doo!
When the snow is on the ground
Here we go round the Mulberry Bush
Three little kittens
I can’t speak for my friends of the early 1950s, but in my case, this wasn’t the only way in which I was learning what James Fassett called the ‘mechanics’ or again what he calls ‘interpretation’. What else was helping me to do what Fassett calls ‘understand the meaning that lies behind’ ‘the words in the printed page’?
My father sang a lot of songs, which we learned. Most of these were in English but some were in French, German and one or two in Yiddish or with Yiddish words in them. My mother read every night to me from as early as I can remember. As I am a younger brother, I suspect that I was that younger child who snuggles in with the older ones and hears what is sometimes called ‘older material’ but incredibly doesn’t mind. Amongst these books are the Beatrix Potter range, most of which we owned, the first in the series of Puffin Picture Books, which were a mix of fiction and non-fiction, the Orlando books, Babar the Elephant, and the English versions of the Pere Castor Books from France much influenced by Russian and Czech artists and which were hybrid fiction-nonfiction books with a libertarian undertow linked to an educational system founded by Paul Faucher, known as ‘New Education’.
Incidentally, anyone interested in the cross-fertilisation between Soviet, French, English and American books from the early 1930s through to the early 1950s should look at ‘Drawn Direct to the Plate’, Noel Carrington and the Puffin Picture Books’ by Joe Pearson (2010) - a remarkable account of how the idea of producing cheap, multi-coloured, imaginative, creative large format picture books for very young children spread around the world. I am in part a product of this movement - and it was a movement - just as much as I am indebted to my teachers of the Beacon Readers, Mrs Hurst and Miss Thomas of Pinner Wood Primary School.
I also learned to read at the meal-table, in the street and on holidays. I have a clear memory of wanting to know what it said on the food packaging on our table - one good reason for not dispensing everything into jugs and serving dishes. My brother in particular was keen to decipher and explain everything. In the streets, I would go shopping with either or both of my parents and they were keen to help me read shop-names and signs in shops. I was particularly fascinated by a shop where we lived called ‘Payantake’. I’ll spell that. All one word. I now realise that this was one of the first serve yourself supermarkets. But there was also Maynards the newsagents, Sketchley’s the dry cleaners, Swannell and Sly the estate agents, Pats Pantry for toys, the Old Oak Tea Rooms, Beaumonts the newsagents, Vassars the newsagents, Ellements for funerals, the Oddfellows Arms, The Queens Head, the Red Lion, the estate agents we lived over, Norman and Butt, the caff next door, Cosmo’s, the Midland Bank, the Electricity Service Centre, Greatbatch the cobblers, the Co-operative Wholesale Store and of course Woolworth’s . I learned to read all these names.
I was particularly fascinated by all the words on the station, the signs, the directions, and the ads for things like Virol a rather delicious sticky tonic. On the handles of the trains it said in curly writing engraved into brass, ‘Live in Metroland’. We lived in Metroland. This was the name for where we lived.
On holidays, from 1950 onwards, we alternated between camping on farms, and going to France. My mother kept scrap books of train tickets, bus tickets, boat tickets, sweet wrappers, food boxes, leaflets from museums and ancient sites. We pored over these when we came back. I learned to say the words in French. My brother kept a logbook which he read to me.
When we visited my father’s sister, her daughters did puzzles. They always had puzzle books which they showed me how to do. When we visited my mother’s parents, her mother would tell long stories about how either she, or my mother’s father, or my mother’s brother had been cheated. When I went to the park with my mother’s father, he met up with other men in dark blue suits like him and they spoke a language I didn’t understand - Yiddish.
On all our holidays, my father had maps. He was always pointing out the names of places, sometimes making up rhymes about them. He also made up songs about the people we went camping with.
At home, my parents read the newspaper, one of which was the Daily Worker. In the corner of one of the pages there was a ‘Children’s Corner’. Here’s a poem about it:
When I was 7 this happened:
David Kellner came up to me at school and said,
You are, aren’t you?
No, you are, I know you are, you are aren’t you?
I’m sorry. I don’t know what you mean, I said.
My mum says you are and she knows
she says she knows you are from your name.
You’re Jewish aren’t you?
I think so, I said.
There you are then, David Kellner said
well, my mum says you should come to the synagogue
and do Hebrew Classes.
So I went home and said,
Er David Kellner says I should go to synagogue
and do Hebrew Classes.
I see, mum said.
Hebrew classes were run by Mrs Kellner
but there wasn’t a synagogue yet.
It was a corrugated iron methodist chapel
without any methodists in it.
Zeyde [Granddad] thought it was hysterical:
‘So Michael’s going to kheder! [Hebrew Classes] Michael’s going to kheyder!
Zeyde didn’t go to shul [synagogue] either,
he went to Hackney Downs instead
and stood around with a lot of old men in dark suits
with shiny bits on the tukhes [bum] of their gatkes [trousers].
At Hebrew classes Mrs Kellner who was very small
and had a huge and wonderful bosom
taught me the letters.
I could only remember two of them.
They both looked like the letter seven
but they each had a dot in a different place.
One of them had the dot over the top
and the other one had the dot in the middle.
How do you tell the difference? said Mrs Kellner,
I’ll tell you.
(I never did David Kellner that I was impressed by
his mother’s wonderful bosom)
What happens, she said
when you get hit by a football over your head?
You say OH!
And what happens
if you get hit by a football in your kishkes [guts]?
You say OOOH!
There you are:
that’s how you tell the difference.
One says OH! And the other says OOOH!
This, I remember
but I left Hebrew Classes
after they shouted at me on the outing to Chessington Zoo.
You don’t have to learn Hebrew
from people who shout at you at Chessington Zoo.
Through all these activities, not just one of them, I learned that reading was not something you did purely and only in school with a Beacon Reader. I learned that English was not the only language in the world. I learned that letters could be used in different ways for different languages. I learned that there were letters other than the ones used in school and you could read using them. I learned that you could borrow language and use it for yourself. I learned that you could play with language and unpredictable and funny meanings came out: my father sang:
‘The higher up the mountain
the sweeter grows the grass
the higher up the donkey climbs
the more it shows its face’.
He said his mother had taught him that and that she had learned it from when she and the family lived in America. That means it dates from before 1922.
On Saturdays we went to the local library. There was a children’s room and we were allowed to borrow 2 or 3 books at a time. My parents would let me browse through books on my own while they went off to choose books for themselves. I would lay books out on the table and if one of my friends happened to be there, we would look at them together. As it happens, I’ve come to think that this is one of the most important activities that parents and teachers can give to children. It enables us to find what we want to read. We do it by scanning many different kinds of texts, selecting and rejecting - each of these being as important as the other, and it implies in its practice that texts belong to the reader.
My brother and I got comics. I think I was most interested in my brother’s one which was called ‘The Eagle’ which was a mixture of British science fiction heroism - Dan Dare who battled the mighty Mekon and the Treens, comedy with a character called Harris Tweed, various kinds of information about wonderful British inventions, pets and good Christian deeds. He would read these to me and we talked about them.
Somewhere around this time, my best friend and I discovered ‘Winnie the Pooh’. His father was a painter and decorator, his mother what we used to call the ‘lollypop lady’ - that’s to say she helped children cross the road on the way to and from school. I have a strong memory of walking down the street, chanting some of ‘Pooh’s Hums’ especially the one about his nose being cold. I can also remember talking with him about the Hefferlump episode and laughing as we tried to explain to each other the absurdity of the story. I can see now that we were trying to get to grips with dramatic irony - that we knew more about what was going on than the protagonists.
At school, we were read to at the end of every day. The first of these that I distinctly remember was ‘Emil and the Detectives’ and the one I was most enthusiastic about was ‘Hue and Cry’ a novelisation of the film of the same title. Our headteacher read to us once a week on a Friday. He would read a chapter and then snap the book shut. We would shout out, how cruel this was, and how he should read it to us more often. We tried to get a copy of the book from the library but he seemed to have the world’s only copy of it. More important than I can explain, we would talk about the book in the time between the Friday readings. This is a great example of the social production of meaning - something that Dickens is celebrated for. That’s to say, meaning of text is not something produced in some kind of private, isolated, individual way. Meaning comes out of social interaction. On the playground we played out ‘Hue and Cry’ which incidentally has strong links to ‘Emil and the Detectives’.
There was a good deal of learning of hymns, carols and songs at school right from the first years. We had song-books, hymn-books and carol sheets. We got these through music lessons, morning assemblies, hymn-practice, carol concerts, and what used to be called RI - religious instruction. This was a text-heavy experience, with hundreds of words that I, for one, didn’t really understand. The music often - not always - carried the boredom of not knowing what I was saying. I can remember asking what was the meaning of: ‘There is a green hill far away without a city wall’ . I said, that hills don’t have walls. It was a good example of being able to read without understanding what I was reading. Not in itself particularly bad - it was part of the textual variety that we were offered. We recited prayers every day - the Lord’s Prayer and one other. I had no idea what the Lord’s Prayer meant - again, in itself no bad thing necessarily.
We also recited poems. At the age of 7 - I can remember the teacher - we were asked to perform poems. One boy learned his off by heart - ‘Autumn Fires’ - but the rest of us read ours ‘with good expression’. I think I read ‘When icicles hang by the wall’ and everyone laughed at the phrase ‘greasy Joan’ because there was a girl in our class called Joan.
When I was a little bit older I was in the Choral Speaking group - other children were in the Choir or other groups. We recited ‘Adlestrop’. There was a good deal of discussion about whether ‘unwontedly’ meant not wanted. We were told by Mrs MacNab that it did not but at the end of the discussion I still thought that it kind of did.
By this time, I was reading historical fiction by authors like Geoffrey Trease - who was a kind of compulsory curriculum for Left wing parents, Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Cynthia Harnett, - animal novels by people like a French author called Rene Guillot, a Canadian author Ernest Thompson Seton, others like ‘Raff the Jungle Bird’ - a story that obsessed me about two New York naturalists who looked after a mynah bird.
These two tastes came out of what my parents had read to me but I have the memory of hunting down books and authors by myself, asking in the library, for example, if they had any more by, say, Rene Guillot or Ernest Thompson Seton who weren’t published by Puffin books.
When I was 10 my father brought back from a conference a book called ‘There’s no Escape’ by Ian Serraillier which Serraillier signed ‘For your ten year old’ . I thought that there was something magical about the author of a book signing it and I badgered my father to tell me about what he looked like. I still have the book.
Throughout this time, I was also reading what I was writing. Surely, one route to being able to read, understanding what we read, is to write things that we say? If, there are things we say but can’t write, again, surely it’s wonderful that there are people who can do it for us? I have no memory of this being done at school - it may well have been though - but my mother did plenty of it. She did it two ways: she wrote down things we said and showed us. Also, she had trained to be what used to be called a ‘shorthand typist’ and would type things that we said to her and we would read them together.
From November 4th, 1952, I still have what we would now call a ‘trail’. It’s ‘My Visit to the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, E2’. I was 6. remember the visit. I went with just my father who would have been 33 at the time. I filled in the sections with him, ‘Christopher Wren was a....‘famous architect’ who lived in the....‘17th 18th’ century. Under ‘Find the names of four people living now who are hleping to make the world a better place to live in, I have written 1. Harry Pollitt - who at the time was General Secretary of the Communist Party. I have a memory of my father laughing that I had written that.
After the trip, we came out to the bus stop and my father pointed over the road and said, ‘Look, there’s your shop’. I looked and the shop was called ‘M.Rosen’ written in large red letters on a white background. I had always had a sense that hardly anyone was called Rosen and certainly there were no other M.Rosens in my world. Now here was a shop with my name on it. It was again magical that just a few letters could have such a powerful effect.
At school, a group of us asked if we could make a class magazine and we made it, duplicated it on a Gestetner and sold it for school funds. We each wrote articles, jokes and puzzles.
In sum, put together all these activities together, say between the time I was born and the age of 10 - and they made me a reader. I understand that by saying that, I have said something controversial. Someone - let’s call him Dave - showed a conference how the children at his school learned how to read. They learned to read doing SSF, he said. He showed us his timetable and it included, I think, about an hour a day, right from the very start, a lot of story-telling, singing, listening to poetry, learning it, listening to teachers reading stories. I made the fatal error of saying that this was also teaching the children how to read. He got very angry with me and said that it didn’t.
So, let’s forget for a moment what this hour a day of story-telling and poetry is called, why did they do it? What was the purpose of it? Dave’s not here to answer that question, so I’m going to give it a go. Quite apart from the fun and delight that I hope was going on the room doing songs, poems and stories, quite apart from whatever these songs, poems and stories say about personal and social experience, hopes, desires, fears, loves, hates and the rest, presumably something else was going on. The children were hearing language used in ways that by and large they wouldn’t hear or use themselves. Just to be clear, this is not because they are backward, benighted, underprivileged children, in the words of West Side Story, ‘depraved on account of being deprived’. No, simply because most written texts are organised in ways that are not the same as the way we speak and talk. We all speak in what have been called ‘minor sentences’, ‘fragments’ with ‘ellipses’, corrections, repetitions, fade-outs, self-interruptions or interruptions from others, speech with visual cues - gestures, facial expressions, speech with expressions which can indicate the exact opposite of what the word apparently means as with, famously, ‘Yeah right’ and ‘Yeah, right’. Speech often relies on pronouns which do not specify each time who the person is talking about.
The literature and non-fiction that was going on in Dave’s school, as he described it, would have been made up of continuous prose, interspersed sometimes with the constructed dialogue of stories and novels. And it would also have included the strange, specialised language of poetry, which is often a thing unto itself, but also picks up on language from a wide range of sources as its raw material.
If we think that learning to read can be expressed in the phrase ‘learning to read with understanding’ then this hearing and acting out of the written word, is part of how we learn to read with understanding. We get how the complicated systems of the written language work. We get how to derive meaning from these systems. We learn that learning how to read with understanding is not a matter of reading letters or not even a matter of reading words. And this is where the arguments can get the fiercest. Reading with understanding involves getting the units of meaning across several or many words, linked as they are by the grammar of the language.
We learn the grammar of the spoken language by hearing and using it thousands of times. One of the key ways to learn the grammar of the written language is to hear it and use it thousands of times. The most pleasurable ways to do that is to be read to, to learn songs, poems and plays that please us and to have what we say scribed for us so that we can read it back.
Dave must have known that. He proudly showed us authors visiting his school, who as far as we could see, were also teaching the children to read as they read their works to the children and followed it up by doing writing workshops with the children, where the children read what they wrote.
I’m not one of those authors - at Dave’s school but it is what I do. I go into schools, I do poems that the children can read for themselves as they are in books. I have put performances of my poems - by me - up on my website so that children can see them over and over again and, as I’ve discovered, learn them without having to learn them.
I hope that many children get to make the connection between the language coming out of my mouth in these performances, the language that they can find on the page, and language that they themselves can write and say.
It’s a very simple circle writing, reading, performing (or call it reading out loud) , writing, reading, performing but, sadly, not one that is necessarily or universally given emphasis. I’ll give an example.
Last year, some musicians and I put together a show called ‘Centrally Heated Knickers’. It was based on a book of poems of the same name that I wrote several years ago. All 100 poems have a link to science, technology and design. It was a commission from the Design Council with co-operation from the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry. We had several meetings where I met the scientists and we discussed whether the poems did or did not open up questions about science and its application in the world around us. In the book, the links between the poems and science are mentioned in the headings and the Association of Science in Education produced a lengthy book with links between the poems, the science in question and what they called ‘literacy’.
The show was a piece of theatre involving me performing the poems, along with a sax player, a guitarist and percussionist who played drums and vibes. A dance and mime artist acted out the poems or choreographed them. We focussed on the poems that were linked to the production and reception of sound and in the middle of the show there was a partly improvised section where I played the scientist demonstrating a machine called the ‘earstument’ which was a mock up of a cross-section of the ear.
At most of the venues we did the show, there were copies of ‘Centrally Heated Knickers’ on sale. Sometimes, I went out to front of house to sign copies. Most of the shows were daytime ones for schools, some though were at the weekends for families.
Now, I don’t know how the adults at these shows conceive of reading and literacy - and for me to talk about this particular show is a matter loaded with my own bias. But, put it this way, when I’ve taken my children to shows, I’ve very consciously thought of ways in which the show can have an afterlife - in part, through text. It may well have an afterlife in, say, putting on shows, dancing or singing or whatever...but I’ve always thought that if we want to make texts as texts matter, then we have to grab every possible link with occasions that are fun, exciting or interesting to that child.
So, if we go to the Tower of London, we go to the shop and whatever things the children buy, I will get some piece of written material that links to it and that will lie about in the house following the visit. I can remember going with my oldest child to see David Wood’s play and his own direction of ‘The Gingerbread Man’ . On the way out there were copies of the play and a cassette tape of the show. Surely here was a perfect way to make a link between the show that Joe had enjoyed, the songs and the dialogue.
So, there am I, sitting in the foyer of a theatre, having done a show that the children have joined in with. As they go out, some of the adults seem to know exactly the fun and worth of making a link between what the children have just seen and heard and the words on a page. We have conversations about that as I sign the books. I see parents or teachers opening the book straightaway and saying things like - and here’s ‘Boogy Woogy Buggy’. They make the connection between what for a young children possibly looks like instant invention - Michael Rosen plus a jazz group - doing a performance - and here laid out on the page - again, as if by magic - is the frozen representation of that performance, the poem in a book. Alongside some other poems that Michael Rosen didn’t perform, and some that he did, and some that are very similar but in some key ways are different.
I’m not surprised that some parents might not know how useful it would be to make the link between the live word of a show and the frozen words on the page. Many have come to believe that the best ways to get their children to be literate is to buy those grammar and spelling booklets on sale in newsagents. The daft thing is that the jokes and puzzles in comics often did the same thing but in fun, sharing ways that we could enjoy together.
In the case of the teachers, I think it’s a matter of how, in the last ten years, the different sides of reading, writing, performing (or saying out loud) have been separated off. So, the occasion of the visit to see Centrally Heated Knickers was for some of the teachers, clearly in the category of ‘seeing a show’ and had no direct or explicit connection to, say, reading or writing.
As I sat there, I found myself wondering, what other ways are there of interesting or exciting children in the written language? There are of course many and I just hope that the schools in question did these. I fear, and of course I can’t prove it that the schools weren’t like the one the poet Andrew Fusek Peters wrote about on facebook recently. He recounted that he had performed his poems in a school and did writing workshops with the children. He had brought some of his books to the school and asked the headteacher if he wanted any. The head replied, no, as they had spent all their money or a new reading scheme.
So, though the school had spent money on inviting a poet in. Though the poet had entertained the children - knowing Andrew’s work - they would have joined in and participated in the performance - though they would have written and read things out loud, one part of the circle would have been missing - namely that no child in the school would have been able to make a link between what Andrew said and what might appear on a page.
In case this sounds what in Yiddish is called ‘kvetsh’ - a moan or whinge on behalf of we poor poets, I think we do have a serious question here about how we initiate and - just as importantly - carry on an interest in written language.
It is clearly not sufficient to announce that this or that child or school student is proficient in reading. If we are interested in education of the whole child, we have to be interested in whether the child or student is intrigued and delighted by written things.
Maybe in the future we will encode our most precious, powerful, wise and indeed most evil ideas - in forms other than the written language. We do a lot already of course via radio, TV and film and the digital platforms now available to us through PCs, laptops, tablets and phones, These are all highly oral and visual forms. However, those that have the power or wealth to produce these forms, actually encode nearly all of them in their first stages through the written word. So there is an irony going on here in that we the masses imbibe this stuff orally and visually while those that produce it do, more often than not, do it through the literacy of scripts, written offers to producers and the whole thing is surrounded by blurbs, puffs, crits, contracts, law cases, articles in magazines and newspapers, text-rich websites.
Meanwhile, powerful ideas - whether those of power or those who wish to critique that power - are still largely expressed through the written word whether that be in traditional forms of newspapers, books and magazines, or in online blogs, twitter, facebook, online newspapers, websites.
I’m not sure that what goes by the name of literacy in schools is universally keeping up with this. In one school, I’ll see children blogging their stories or accounts of the trip to Kew Gardens to schools in the USA or Australia. In another school, I’ll see children writing their stories and accounts in their exercise books, where they get marked and forgotten. In one school, I’ll see children making performances out of songs and poems - partly written by themselves, partly written by teachers, partly written by published authors. In another school, I’ll gather that children hardly do any of this because it’s not ‘literacy’. Literacy in some cases is doing literacy exercises and only literacy exercises because the exercises are good rehearsals for the literacy tests.
Just to be clear, I am not blaming or even criticising those teachers and those schools which do this. In a system which is centrally controlled through the tests, league tables and inspection systems, schools will do whatever they think is the best way to get through the hoops. If dry runs of high-stakes testing appears to get the least able through the tests, they will do it. If the same authorities then blame them for teaching to the test, they’ll take the insult and carry on so that their school doesn’t get closed or turned into something else that no one in that school’s community asked for.
Of course, I - and I suspect most people here - will try to say that exciting children to be interested in reading and writing has to be a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional process in which we look out of hooks to catch different children in different ways. One child gets hooked on comics and graphic novels - as three of my children have. Another one gets hooked on fairy books - one of my children. Another one on poetry - as none of my children have. Another one on song and performance - as I did. Another one on puzzles and science - as my brother did. For some, it might be the fact that that child has a younger brother, sister, cousin or neighbour who wants to be entertained...as in the tweet I mentioned at the very beginning.
So, I’ll mention one other powerful motor in my life that has affected me since my childhood. My brother discovered the Molesworth books. These take place in a Hogwarts sort of a place - a private school, called St Custards, where Molesworth a thirteen or fourteen year old has sussed what’s going on, the corruption, the senseless testing, the overblown rhetoric. The school itself was absolutely nothing like my primary school, though some of it could be related to the grammar school that my brother went to and where I would go a few years later.
Over a long period my brother read the Molesworth books to me. They are written in non-correct English as if Molesworth, who tells the stories, is only semi-literate. He read these to me many, many times. We sometimes sat next to each other laughing at the spelling, marvelling at Ronald Searle’s drawings and caricatures. Sometimes we would weep with laughter at these books. Eventually, we would be able to quote whole sections at each other and expressions from the books started turning up in our speech, and in our letters to each other if were apart - on holiday or whatever.
Nearly 60 years later, we’re still doing it.
Most people in this room, I suspect might be able to point to analogous activities to do with comics, songs, poems, theatre clubs, where the social activity drove the attachment to this or that text or part of a text. Sometimes it’s only intermittent or fragmentary. In my case I’m lucky enough to say that it intense, frequent and repeated. As it happens, in my case, it went on at home.
But I’ve been to schools where it goes on through stories, poems, songs, plays, pantomimes and whole school projects on, say, ‘The Tempest’. This calls for teachers, children, parents and school-workers to co-operate on a huge joint enterprise. In the process and the evaluation, teachers find out areas of practise not covered by words like ‘lesson’ or ‘assessment’ but which nevertheless have everything to do with - for want of a better word - literacy.
In the last school I was in, where the school were embarking on whole school project about Noah and the flood, I got into a conversation with a teacher about how the children could each contribute to a narrative performance poem about the flood, whilst at the same time putting in solo pieces written and performed by the animals, Noah’s family along with choruses from, say, the rain, the clouds, the sky, God, the water, the ark. ‘I am king of the clouds’ wrote one boy. The rain chorus warned that they would rain and rain and never stop. God said that nothing frightened him, nothing at all. I showed them that simply by repeating a word or phrase you set up a rhythm. I had a conversation with a teacher saying that repetition is the basis of most poetry, whether that’s through meter, rhyme, alliteration or patterns of images, even opposites and contrasts are a form of repetition. All the teachers and all the children were active planners in the devising of the texts and performances of the show.
[I think I made some ad-lib comments to conclude but I'm afraid I don't have a record of them…]